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A day out in Lichfield

PUBLISHED: 00:00 25 July 2016

The three spires of Lichfield Cathedral from the Garden of Remembrance

The three spires of Lichfield Cathedral from the Garden of Remembrance

mike smith

Derbyshire Life has a day out across the county border

Bore StreetBore Street

Five years have elapsed since I last travelled beyond the Derbyshire border to research an article about Lichfield. On that occasion, I was greeted on my arrival in the Staffordshire city by a ghostly figure looking down from the window of a stately Palladian mansion. The lifelike effigy of Erasmus Darwin, the 18th-century polymath and grandfather of Charles Darwin, was the perfect introduction to a city that would greatly impress me with its handsome buildings, historical associations and fine independent shops. Would I be equally impressed on this occasion?

I would have been very disappointed on my return visit if Erasmus had not been there to greet me, but there he was, large as life but white as death, still looking out of his window. As it turned out, my re-acquaintance with the great man was timely, because 2016 marks the 250th anniversary of the foundation of the Lunar Society. Erasmus Darwin was one of the original members of the society, which was a forum where some of the great innovators of the time could exchange ideas. Regular attendees included Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt, Matthew Boulton, John Whitehurst and Joseph Priestley.

Erasmus Darwin’s fine town house, now occupied by a museum dedicated to his life and work, is hosting a number of events to mark the anniversary of the society, which convened on the nearest Monday to each full moon, allowing the journey home of the members to be illuminated. A series of Lunar Lectures, covering topics from female education to clock-making and engineering, is taking place throughout this year. As is appropriate, the talks are being timed to coincide with full moons.

The museum stands at the entrance to The Close, a charming street that is framed by two fine terraces before it opens out into a close flanked by buildings fashioned in a harmonious variety of styles. This typical English cathedral close is the perfect setting for a magnificent English medieval cathedral, which is actually atypical in one respect. It is the only one with three spires.

The Secret Garden in Tudor RowThe Secret Garden in Tudor Row

The graceful western spires of the cathedral soar above a west front embellished by a stunning array of 113 statues, including effigies of no fewer than 24 kings of England, all clearly labelled and arranged in chronological order, thereby making the façade a perfect visual aid for a history lesson. On the day of my visit, pupils from Lichfield Cathedral School were having their history lesson inside the church, where volunteer guide Margaret Guest was showing them the cathedral’s finest historical treasures, including an Anglo-Saxon carving known as the Lichfield Angel, the eighth-century St Chad Gospels and Sir Francis Chantrey’s touching sculpture of two young sleeping sisters.

At the time of my last visit, a fourth great treasure, the great east windows, had been removed for restoration. On that occasion, my guides had been Meryl Hewitson-Groves and her 92-year-old husband George. I was delighted to be told by Margaret Guest that George is still going strong and I was equally pleased to find that the windows are now back in place. These dazzlingly-colourful and complex windows, acquired in 1803 from Belgium’s Herkenrode Abbey, are regarded as the finest Renaissance stained-glass windows in England. Margaret told me that their original cost was £200, but that their restoration had cost £3.7 million. In my view, money well spent on both occasions.

A large, but badly-weathered statue of Charles II on the exterior of the south transept is a clear indication that the cathedral and its close served as a Royalist stronghold in the Civil War. The central spire, which had to be rebuilt after being badly damaged in various battles between the Royalists and Parliamentarians, was used on one occasion as a vantage point for a sniper who killed the unfortunate Roundhead General Lord Brooke as he watched the fighting from nearby Dam Street.

At the time of my previous visit, I was captivated by Dam Street’s fine Georgian buildings, welcoming cafés and good specialist shops. Five years on, it was a relief to find that the street’s architectural heritage is still intact, from the wonderful terrace opposite the Minster Pool to a beautifully renovated building at the foot of the street which houses Fortescues, a delightful ladies’ fashion and lifestyle emporium. The cafés are as appetising as they have ever been and the gift and craft shops are still treasure troves demanding to be explored. Nonetheless, I did notice a few changes.

The Three Spires Shopping CentreThe Three Spires Shopping Centre

I was surprised to see that The Place, David and Paula Smith’s wonderful craft and gift emporium, which I had visited on my previous trip to the city, had disappeared from the eastern side of the street. However, I was relieved to find that it has relocated to premises across the road, where it continues to sell fabrics and a huge range of crafting materials, particularly for quilting.

Even though a sign on a 16th-century building in a side-alley known as Quonians indicates that it houses ‘R Bridgeman & Sons, architectural and ecclesiastical craftsmen in wood and stone’, the building is actually occupied by a wonderful antique shop. Owner Dennis Smith said, ‘I delight in pointing out to my American customers that my premises are 200 years older than their country.’

The saddest change is the plight of Dam Street’s bookshop, a mecca for book-lovers for over 70 years. Like so many other bookshops in the country, it has closed. The consolation for bibliophiles is that the birthplace of Dr Samuel Johnson, on the Market Place, still contains a bookshop that was established 300 years ago by the famous lexicographer’s father, Michael Johnson.

Every purchase from the bookshop helps to fund the Birthplace Museum, which occupies all five floors of the building with fascinating displays devoted to the life and times of the great man. The adjacent St Mary’s Church also houses a museum. Its fine collection includes an extensive display of silver chalices and goblets, a collection of 16,000 photographs, all of them available in digitised form, and an eleven-panel Millennium Tapestry devoted to 2,000 years of Lichfield history.

Since my last visit, the Tourist Information Centre has been installed in the church, having been moved from the Garrick Theatre, and the city’s library is also about to be rehoused in the church. The museum’s Business Manager Caroline Kerr has the task of drawing up an action plan in response to this impending change. No matter how imaginative her plans may be, she will still have to rely on a dedicated team of volunteers and on donations from visitors to maintain this excellent attraction.

Bore Street, which is located immediately behind St Mary’s Church, is a combination of fine shops and impressive architecture, including the 18th-century Donegal House, the 19th-century Guildhall and a beautiful 16th-century half-timbered building which houses The Tudor of Lichfield, a famous chocolate shop and café. Since my last visit, the shop has stopped producing its own varieties, but the range of chocolates on sale here is still mouth-wateringly impressive.

Tudor Row, a picturesque shopping alleyway running alongside the chocolate shop, leads to Castle Dyke, which is framed by the impressive entrance to the Three Spires Shopping Centre and the highly original modern façade of the Lichfield Garrick Theatre. Named after yet another of the city’s famous sons, David Garrick, the celebrated Shakespearean actor, the theatre puts on more than 400 live performances a year and will be an important venue during the 35th Lichfield Festival.

As ever, the festival will embrace music, dance, drama, comedy and literature, much of which will be inspired this year by the events of 1916, when the Battle of the Somme was at its height, the Easter Rising was taking place in Ireland and Russia was on the brink of revolution, and, on a much lighter note, cinema was beginning to take off in a big way and music halls were in their heyday.

Given its many historical associations with important figures in the arts and sciences, Lichfield is the perfect venue for a festival. At the beginning of my return trip, I had wondered if I would be as impressed by the city as I was on my visit five years ago. The answer is an unqualified ‘Yes’.

For details of the Lunar Lectures, see www.erasmusdarwin.org.

Where to park: Lichfield has a number of well-signed car parks. On my visit, I parked in the Angel Croft car park, Beacon Street, which is located directly opposite the Erasmus Darwin House and the entrance to The Close (giving direct access to the Cathedral). Simply follow signs for the Cathedral in the town centre.

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